Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Shelf Indulgence review

In this Shelf Indulgence review – Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. John Steinbeck is best known for his earlier novels Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the BBC’s ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’, Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California in the same era, and the denizens live wherever they can find shelter: a meal house shack, an defunct cannery boiler – even subletting sections of the boiler pipes to others of lesser standing. Mack is leader of a group of men who share billets in the ‘Palace Flophouse’, having in common: ‘no ambition beyond food, drink and contentment.’ They also, an old fishmeal store. Mack carries the main – very loose – narrative, centred around scientist and philanthropist, Doc, the owner of Western Biological Laboratory, who occasionally engages the men to catch frogs or squid for the educational market. Doc is beloved by everyone for his kindness and generosity – everyone wants to do something nice for Doc – but nobody ever seems to get around to doing it.  The tone is light – even comedic – and Steinbeck can lead you daintily towards an inevitable conclusion, only to pirouette and leave you face-about, and laughing, at the end of a scene. Written as a nostalgic attempt to conjure an old Monterey which was largely gone by 1945 when the book was published, Steinbeck creates vivid images of the ‘tranquil, lovely and murderous’ seashore, sometimes making forays into the wild hills beyond, painting a vibrant picture of the ‘poor’ end of town, which is rich in character and community spirit, for all its poverty. His descriptions are impressionistic, distilling the essence of place and personality. In the opening few pages, the author poses the question, ‘How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?’ The answer is with grace and humour, lightness of touch and a profound understanding and love of both nature and humanity.

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